The vice-presidential candidates held their own in first and only encounter.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Oct. 3 2008 6:44 AM

A League of Their Own

The vice-presidential candidates faced off last night in an eagerly anticipated debate that ultimately failed to deliver any of the game-changing moments that partisans on both sides were hoping for. The debate "included humor, emotion and sharp elbows," notes USA Today, as the candidates kept things relatively peaceful while they  eagerly sparred on taxes, Iraq, and who can best bring change to Washington. Coming a day after the Senate voted in favor of the $700 billion bailout plan, it was hardly surprising the economy quickly took center stage, and Joe Biden and Sarah Palin each tried to portray their ticketmate as the candidate most capable of understanding the struggles of the middle class.

Ultimately, each "escaped without a major mishap," says the Washington Post, "and Palin seemed to repair an image that had been damaged by recent media interviews and increasing public doubts about her readiness for the nation's No. 2 job." While many predicted Palin would be embarrassed on a national stage when facing off against the veteran senator, the governor of Alaska largely held her own. Still, "Palin's novelty was on full display," says the Los Angeles Times. "She winked repeatedly, and often uttered remarks in a sing-song lilt more often heard in a children's classroom than on the national stage." The New York Timesagrees and says that Palin proved she "was unlike any other running mate in recent memory, using phrases like 'heck of a lot' and 'Main Streeters like me' to appeal to working-class and middle-class voters." But even as she displayed more confidence on the important issues, "her citing of facts sometimes came across as rote, she twice misstated the name of the top American general in Afghanistan, and she was chided at times for not sticking to the subject at hand," says the Wall Street Journal.

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While the "experience gap was evident throughout," as the LAT puts it, the NYT probably describes it best by saying that Palin "succeeded by not failing in any obvious way." She often relied on talking points and repeatedly referred to John McCain as a "maverick." A while into the debate it seemed Biden had had enough of the word and replied that McCain "has been no maverick on the things that matter to people's lives." And that was Biden's strategy throughout the encounter as he mostly ignored Palin and made McCain the focus of his toughest attacks.

At one point, when Biden attacked McCain for favoring deregulation and Palin answered by talking about taxes, the senator from Delaware did directly criticize Palin's failure to answer the questions she was being asked. The governor quickly turned it into a criticism of the media and Washington politicians. "I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let 'em know my track record also."

Biden repeatedly tried to link McCain with the Bush administration. In what the WP says may have been "the essence of the night," Palin replied in kind by saying that Americans would eventually grow tired of the Democratic ticket "constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers, and doing the blame game." Biden was ready with a response: "Look, past is prologue." The LAT notes that in her eagerness "to portray Biden as typical of the Washington establishment so despised by voters, Palin at one point made an argument that echoed Obama's thrust against McCain" when she said that "Americans are craving something new and different."

Palin "delivered a livelier and more rhetorically compelling performance than Biden," says the LAT in an analysis that points out the governor winked at the audience, gave a "shout-out" to her brother's third-grade class, and talked of her connection to voters as a hockey and soccer mom. For his part, Biden seemed more comfortable when dealing with policy. Still, the debate's most emotional moment belonged to Biden when he briefly choked up when talking about the car accident that killed his wife and daughter. The NYT's Alessandra Stanley says that "while her showmanship may have exhilarated her fans, it also helped Mr. Biden, who is normally known as something of a know-it-all showoff; in contrast to her, he seemed reserved and sincere."

In the end, the encounter may have left voters wishing there were more vice-presidential debates. "Palin and Biden were each appealing in their own way—and in ways that neither McCain nor Obama were in their first debate last Friday," says the Post in a front-page analysis. In its own analysis, USAT also compares the debate with last week's encounter and says the two running mates "delivered a fierce, fast-talking back-and-forth with tougher criticism than the presidential contenders traded in their first debate."

The NYT says that while Palin may have helped McCain by putting the focus back on the presidential candidates, it didn't "constitute the turning point the McCain campaign was looking for" at a time when Obama seems to be gaining ground with voters. "This is going to help stop the bleeding," a Republican consultant said. "But this alone won't change the trend line." There were new signs yesterday that McCain needs all the help he can get as his campaign announced that it was pulling its staff and advertising out of Michigan, a Democratic state where Republicans once thought McCain had a chance.

In a story that looks at the state of the presidential race, the WSJ points out that polls show Obama leading in almost enough states to win the election. The Democratic nominee is ahead or tied in a few states that voted Republican in 2004, including Ohio and Florida, and has a lead in Pennsylvania, which is the other Democratic state McCain's campaign has been targeting. Of course, a lot can change in a month, but right now McCain's campaign is "being forced to play defense in territory Republicans have long taken for granted."

In other news, the LAT fronts a look at how lawmakers who opposed the $700 billion bailout package have been on the receiving end of intense lobbying in advance of today's crucial vote in the House. Some of it has come from independent citizens, but the powerful blitz has also been the result of a concerted effort by the country's major business groups to rally support for the rescue plan. It's still unclear whether the House will have enough votes to pass the measure, but there are hints that several lawmakers will be changing their vote, even if they're not willing to say so publicly just yet.

The WSJ appears to want to send a message directly to lawmakers with a Page One piece that details how new economic data seem to suggest the crisis is rapidly getting worse in both the United States and Europe. Yesterday the Federal Reserve said that in the last week financial institutions grew even more reluctant to offer basic short-term loans to companies. The tightening up of so-called "commercial paper" is the "most worrying aspect of the crisis," says the WSJ.

While McCain was widely ridiculed for putting much of the blame for the financial crisis on Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the NYT suggests today that the Republican candidate may have been on to something. The NYT says one of the root causes of the current crisis can be traced back to a brief meeting in 2004, where the big investment banks pushed the SEC to allow them to take on more debt. A few months later, "the net capital rule" was changed, and "the five big independent investment firms were unleashed." Although the new rules would allow the SEC to keep banks away from excessively risky activity, the agency essentially ended up "outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves." Cox came onboard a year later, but he made it clear from the outset that oversight of the banks was not an important priority, and regulators essentially ignored any problems that were discovered.

The NYT reports that after months of criticism from the United States, the Pakistani government has launched a full-scale assault against the Taliban in the country's tribal regions. "After years of relative passivity, the army is now engaged in heavy fighting with the militants on at least three fronts," says the Times. Even as many in Pakistan are convinced that something must be done to root out the Taliban, the government has done little to prepare the country for the fighting and risks losing the "hearts and minds" of civilians who are increasingly critical of its alliance with the United States.

The editorial pages of the LAT, NYT, and WP express disappointment in last night's debate. The WP says that the fact that "a rather surface-skimming discussion full of evasion and mischaracterization was viewed as good news" for both candidates is a reflection of just how low the expectations were. For its part, the NYT says the debate "did not change the essential truth" that McCain "made a wildly irresponsible choice" when he picked Palin. The LAT is the most decidedly unimpressed with the "Joe and Sarah show," saying that the "two candidates—aided and abetted by the singularly inarticulate work of moderator Gwen Ifill—combined to produce one of the worst debates in modern American presidential history."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.